How We Treat Our Immigration Detainees

By Nick Braune
Mid-Valley Town Crier
Posted with Permission

Last weekend, March 24 and 25, I joined a pilgrimage led by Jay Johnson-Castro, who has been walking (walking) to various detention sites for immigrants. He and his friends are causing quite a stir around the state; I hooked up with him a bit on his route from an ugly Port Isabel detention center to an ugly one in Raymondville.

My wife and I rode slowly in our car in a short caravan behind Jay and some other stalwart walkers — pilgrims to the Raymondville immigrant detention center. Jay, seeming to me to be in his mid-fifties and wearing a light straw hat to keep the sun off of him, was feeling upbeat, and he made a series of beautiful stump speeches for the press — I saw three news media interview him.

Why should it be a crime, he asks the press, to be an economic or political refugee? Why do authorities lock people up as criminals for being oppressed and wanting to escape to America? Isn’t that (seeking refuge) what the poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty is about?
Emma Lazarus’ stunning sonnet refers to America as the “Mother of Exiles” with mild eyes welcoming the tired, the poor and “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” But these detention centers do not have mild eyes.

The most emotional part of the pilgrimage for me was simply the sight of the Raymondville center. As we moved off of the highway to it, we saw the bleak prison and the barbed wire. There are regular buildings around, but the detainees are held in huge puffy tents. An article in Rolling Stone magazine last year said the center looked like it just landed from Mars.

(The Raymondville area, the Rolling Stone article explained, was labeled the Valley of Tears in the late 1970s during an onion strike. After the strike, the growers got rid of most farm workers, and the Raymondville area tried textiles to survive. But NAFTA killed the textiles. Then the idea of making Raymondville “Prisonville” caught on. And now Raymondville with its windowless tents, is a Valley of Tears for yet another reason.)

Hundreds and hundreds live inside the tents, twenty three hours a day inside. I asked Jodi Goodwin, a Harlingen lawyer who joined the walk with Jay, some questions about the detainees.

Author: Do lawyers regularly help detainees learn their rights and do detainees know what to do to free themselves from the tents?

Goodwin: There are no lawyers that regularly visit the detainees to give legal rights presentations. A group of about 6 lawyers volunteered from August through December to give such presentations to the detainees, but ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] cut off our access to the detainees when they found out we were able to go inside the tents to give the presentations. As far as I know, no rights presentations have been given since the second week of December of 2006. I do not believe that ICE gives the detainees information about how to free themselves from the tents. That was part of the information we used to provide during our rights presentations.

Author: I suspect there is a deliberate effort to make detainees feel like criminals, even though they have not been convicted of a crime. Do they have prison clothes, have to stand in line, get yelled at, etc.?

Goodwin: Yes, they wear prison clothes; yes, they are kept in lines; yes, they are yelled at. Actually, they are treated worse than criminals. Criminals at least have a right to representation regardless of their financial ability. Immigration detainees have no right to counsel unless they can afford to pay a lawyer themselves.

Author: I heard you say earlier that some are having trouble sleeping; any comments on how their basic needs (food, sleep, exercise, medical help) are being met?

Goodwin: I believe that basic needs such as sleep, food, exercise, medical attention are in fact not being met. My clients report being incommunicado because the phones do not work, or because they have no money to buy an overpriced phone card. My clients report insufficient amounts of food. Stale or undercooked food. Rancid milk served past the expiration dates. Weeks of waiting to see someone from the medical staff. Lights being left on 24 hours a day. No toilet paper available for days on end. And there’s much more lacking in the way of basic needs.

Author: Is there anything my readers can do to help?

Goodwin: Call or email Senators and Representatives to encourage them to pass meaningful immigration reform and to demand ICE live up to its own detention standards by treating human beings with dignity.

Part II, next week.

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